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Being Me Being You

Adam Smith and Empathy

Modern notions of empathy often celebrate its ability to bridge divides, to unite humankind. But how do we square this with the popular view that we can never truly comprehend the experience of being someone else? In this book, Samuel Fleischacker delves into the work of Adam Smith to draw out an understanding of empathy that respects both personal difference and shared humanity.

After laying out a range of meanings for the concept of empathy, Fleischacker proposes that what Smith called “sympathy” is very much what we today consider empathy. Smith’s version has remarkable value, as his empathy calls for entering into the perspective of another—a uniquely human feat that connects people while still allowing them to define their own distinctive standpoints. After discussing Smith’s views in relation to more recent empirical and philosophical studies, Fleischacker shows how turning back to Smith promises to enrich, clarify, and advance our current debates about the meaning and uses of empathy.

248 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Philosophy: General Philosophy, History and Classic Works

Philosophy of Science


"A helpful exploration of the variety of ways in which we use the term 'empathy' today. . . . A dense and fascinating philosophical treatise. . . . Being Me Being You is an excellent read for anyone interested in Smith and in how we live and get along with others. It makes important contributions to the literature of moral philosophy, and deftly answers several modern direct and indirect challenges to Smithian empathy."

Adam Smith Works

"Urge[s] for Smith a much more central place in discussions of contemporary ethics and politics than he has usually been accorded, and . . . make[s] the case for the benefits that broader reading and better understanding of Smith might bring. . . . Acknowledge[s] the (curiously compelling) narratives of social disillusionment and dysfunction to be found in Smith’s account of modernity, but reframe[s] his critiques, presenting them as warnings and guideposts rather than jeremiads, and giving us a Smith whose insights might offer us some help in avoiding the worst tendencies of our age."

Eighteenth-Century Studies

"Philosophically rich, elegantly written, fair-minded, and informed by a humane moral sensibility. It deserves a wide readership. . . . Those familiar with Fleischacker's work will not be surprised by the clarity of the analyses, and I recommend them to your attention. Beyond the philosophical performance, however, Being Me Being You is striking for its moral outlook, which appears both to stimulate and be informed by the discussion of empathy. That outlook is manifest in the book's advocacy for modesty, humility and sensitivity to our moral fragility as human beings. . . . Fleischacker's book invites and provokes readers to reflect on fundamental philosophical and moral issues. Being Me Being You thus deserves an honored place in the intellectual tradition initiated by Adam Smith."

Journal of Scottish Philosophy

"A very welcome addition both to scholarship on Adam Smith and to the burgeoning field of empathy studies. Fleischacker brings decades of excellent and influential work on Smith to the popular topic of empathy . . . . In doing so, Fleischacker offers important responses to some perennial objections to Smith's empathy-based moral theory. . . . But [he] does more than just delineate and defend Smithian empathy in this book; he also makes a compelling case for an eclectic, humanistic, and empathy-based ethics. . . . Fleischacker has offered an incredibly rich and stimulating treatment of Smithian empathy and modern ethics. It is a very welcome contribution to the literature, and will surely be a spur to further research." 

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"The author considers contemporary empirical research, the possibility that cultural differences or individual bias toward those close to one may undercut a Smithian account of empathy, and whether utilitarianism is the proper path for moral philosophy to take. On this last point, Fleischacker rejects utilitarianism and instead advocates for a view combining empathy and a rule-based account of justice, a view he believes compatible with Smith’s own views. He concludes with a discussion of empathy and the demonization of others. These are important and complex issues, particularly demonization, and the author certainly adds something of value to the discussion. He addresses the issue clearly. . . . Recommended."


“In this impressive book, Fleischacker conducts an inquiry into the intersection of two currently much discussed topics: the ethical import of empathy and the philosophy of Adam Smith. Writing with elegance, insight, and an admirable degree of intellectual breadth, Fleischacker adjudicates the multiple uses and misuses of the term empathy in the literature, criticizes currently fashionable rejections of empathy’s moral value, and defends his own account in harmony with his interpretation of Smith’s outlook. This is a major contribution.”

C. A. J. (Tony) Coady, University of Melbourne

Being Me Being You offers a novel interpretation of Adam Smith’s conception of empathy—or ‘sympathy,’ as Smith referred to the phenomenon—and defends its importance for ethical theory.  Ethicists, especially those with interests in moral psychology, will find Fleischacker’s nuanced discussion of empathy to be of great interest, and the book is written in such an accessible and inviting manner that it will no doubt serve students of all levels. Moreover, Fleischacker develops an innovative Smithian account of humanity. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that his discussion of Smithian humanity is one of the most sophisticated and impressive philosophical commentaries on Smith’s thought that I have encountered. Accordingly, this book is an important addition both to the secondary literature on Adam Smith and to ethical theory more generally.”

Nir Ben-Moshe, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"Fleischacker’s parsing of Smithian empathy is dazzling intellectually, and it’s enriched by his own deeply empathetic insight into human character. His use of the distinction between cognitive and emotional empathy as the foundation for a public conversation that’s grounded in individual perspectives while also transcending them is completely persuasive (and deserves special attention in our era of conversation-stopping tribalism). His analysis of demonization and his prescription of Smithian empathy as a remedy will be part of my own moral vocabulary from now on. Being Me Being You is philosophy at its most humane, relevant, and wise."

Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution, author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50

"The last twenty years have seen the rise of a rich scholarship on [Adam] Smith’s ideas about empathy, commercial society, and the burgeoning global economy of the modern era... Fleischacker argues that Smithian empathy can encompass a wider appreciation of difference, including differences of culture, gender, race, and class."

New York Review of Books

"An important contribution to scholarship on Adam Smith, as well as to contemporary ethical theories about the moral value of empathy."


Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

1 Varieties of Empathy
2 Smithian Empathy
3 Updating Smith
4 Empathy and Culture
5 Empathy and Affectional Ties
6 Utilitarianism and the Limits of Empathy
7 Empathy and the Limits of Utilitarianism (I)
8 Empathy and the Limits of Utilitarianism (II)
9 Empathy and Demonization


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